Competitors turn the corner during the inaugural San Antonio Bike Bash 2015 on Saturday, August 8, 2015. The criterium races, spread over two days, had 175 competitors enter. Photo by Matthew Busch.
Sunday's L'Étape San Antonio bike race, which is affiliated with the Tour de France, will be the first such event staged in the United States. Credit: Matthew Busch for the San Antonio Report

San Antonio is a long way from making the list of bicycle-friendliest cities in the United States, but this Sunday’s inaugural L’Étape San Antonio, a cycling event affiliated with the Tour de France, could be the start of something big.

The question is: Will San Antonio build on it going forward?

The Sunday event features organized cycling rides of 100-, 60- and 25-mile distances starting and ending at UTSA’s Main Campus. Riders on the longer route will head west toward Bandera and Comfort and back through Helotes. An impressive 2,200 riders are registered, proving that if you give San Antonians a chance to ride safely in well-organized events, they will come.

The event has an awkward name and not much name recognition yet, but that could change over the life of the three-year deal between San Antonio Sports — the organization that has brought this city multiple NCAA Final Fours and the annual Rock ‘n Roll San Antonio Marathon, among many other events — and L’Étape by Tour de France, the French organization affiliated with the Tour de France that now stages tour-like cycling events in 21 different countries.

San Antonio is the group’s first foothold in the United States. Count me as an avid cyclist who was, frankly, baffled that the organizers agreed to bring their event to San Antonio rather than one of the other U.S. cities better known for its cycling culture and infrastructure.

San Antonio Sports deserves credit for going after the event and, looking at the bigger picture, seeking to support more cycling events in the future. It’s part of the organization’s larger plan to introduce healthy programming to Fiesta, better known for beer, chicken on a stick and turkey legs.

The 100 mile route at L'Étape features a hill country tour with nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain.
L’Étape San Antonio’s 100-mile route features a Hill Country tour with nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain. Credit: Courtesy / L'Étape

Fiesta FitFest, created by SA Sports, is an official event on the Fiesta calendar for the first time this year, and with major sponsorship support from H-E-B, the Friday-Sunday schedule at UTSA’s Main Campus offers something for everyone: the aforementioned cycling events, 5K and 10K runs, boxing fitness workouts with former world champion boxer Jesse James Leija and the Alpha Warrior Challenge Competition.

Institutional support for safer cycling in San Antonio — and a more robust calendar of organized walking, running and cycling events — is essential going forward. Without the right political and business community support, the local cycling community, in particular, has repeatedly found itself without influence at city hall.

Some cities hold events like Síclovía, where busy thoroughfares are closed to give way to recreation, every week. San Antonio manages two events annually. Integrated bike lane infrastructure, now found in cities as large as New York and Mexico City, does not exist here.

One businessman supporting greater promotion of cycling here is Bob Raymond, a San Antonio Sports board member who serves as chair of its bids and events committee that secured the deal with L’Étape.

“This is the culmination of years of work at San Antonio Sports, where we have been looking to create a cycling event for a long time,” he said. “We are always looking to create homegrown events that are not onetime things, and Fiesta FitFest helps us put a healthier face on Fiesta itself. We came across the L’Étape organization and approached them, and it just happened we were in the right place at the right time. They were looking for their first U.S. venue to stage a tour cycling event. They were very excited about coming here, becoming part of Fiesta and enjoying all the promotion that comes with it.”

“The cycling community in San Antonio is really growing, and COVID had something to do with it, I think,” said Russ Bookbinder, CEO of San Antonio Sports. “I think this weekend’s event will do for cycling what the Rock ‘n Roll Marathon did for running. It took that event to get here to get a lot more people running. This cycling event will do the same. Next year will be even better.”

Michael Brown, the founder of MB Events, which owns the rights to L’Étape events in the United States and Canada, is encouraged by the first-year registration, with nearly 900 of the cyclists registered for the 100-mile ride, including the H-E-B and Valero corporate cycling teams.

Many riders undoubtedly will be drawn to ride in an event with its special ambassador, Spain’s Alberto Contador, the now-retired winner of all three Grand Tour events: the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.

“We will launch a second event in Las Vegas next year, and then other events in four or five other U.S. cities,” Brown said, “But San Antonio is first. We were aiming for 2,500 riders in our first year here, so we are happy with the response.”

Brown said online registration is now closed, but riders can show up Friday at Fiesta FitFest at UTSA’s Main Campus and register in person.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.